Everyone knows they should try to “fail fast, fail often.” Thanks to Seth Godin’s book The Dip, many know what to when they experience early success… and then need to decide whether to quit or keep going when things inevitably get tough, and success seems in short supply.
But what do you do when after years of achievement you experience a downturn? What do you when you experience less success than you have in the past — much less than you hope for now?
That’s a question we all, at some point, are forced to answer. Every business and every career goes through temporary reversals in fortune. After all, Stephen King wrote Rose Madder. Jennifer Lawrence starred in Joy. Metallica released St. Anger. (Sorry, Kirk.)
That’s even true for Jimmie Johnson, the 7-time NASCAR champion (which ties him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most championships won by a driver), winner of 83 races, and the only driver in the sport’s history to win 5 championships in a row.
In 2016, Jimmie worked his way up from the rear of the field and overcame a disastrous pit stop to win the season finale — and with it, the season title — in overtime.
2017 also started off strong as Johnson won 3 of the first 13 races. But the team struggled through the last half of the season, limped into the playoffs, and finished tenth in the standings.
This year has been even more forgettable: Barring unforeseen circumstances at this weekend’s regular season ending race at Indianapolis, he will finish in fifteenth or sixteenth place. That will qualify him for the playoffs — for many drivers, a feat in itself — but for Johnson, will mark another notch on his disappointment belt.
When your nickname is “7-time,” squeezing into the playoffs — and living through a 47-race winless drought — has to feel like a massive dip.
Your team’s results over the last year or so have definitely not been what you hoped. What is that like on a day-to-day basis, and has that experience changed you as a person?
Each day, each week, each month… every one is different as you live through dips.
Emotions definitely change. Some days I’ll see a quote or listen to a podcast and get super-charged and energized and embrace the right mindset… and then there are days when none of that stuff helps. (Laughs.)
But I’ve been here before. Some NASCAR fans may only know me through my time at the Cup level. I did manage to perform well enough to earn my next rides and make my way through the ranks… but along the way many other drivers outperformed me, and their stars definitely shone a lot brighter.
Absolutely. I’ve been through deeper valleys before.
Life experiences definitely help. I’m counting on that. After all, I’m still growing and still learning.
The biggest difference from now to then is that, as a husband and a father, I want to carry myself through this in a certain way. My approach, my reactions, my frustrations… most parenting comes through action and example… and I know that what I do is being watched by our little ones. That really helps keep me grounded and focused.
Something people rarely talk about is how success in the past doesn’t make you feel better when you’re struggling in the present. You’re told to put things in perspective, but that’s hard to do.
Some days I see a little spark from a technical standpoint and that will make me optimistic. Then we’ll take that optimistic piece to the track and we’ll end up beaten down and defeated. It’s like a damned rollercoaster. (Laughs.)
But that’s sports. Really, that’s life. I have had the most amazing success but I’ve always been fair with myself, and realistic with myself, and tried to be humble. Which is really easy right now. (Laughs.)
And you’re right about perspective. I look back sometimes and think, “How did we win all those championships?”
Right now it’s a process. But years from now, when I have a chance to reflect back, I’m sure I’ll see some takeaways.
You mentioned your daughters. I heard Jason Alexander on Howard Stern talking about raising kids when a parent is a celebrity. Howard said something to the effect of, “Every kid wants to feel like the star in their home, but when the parent actually is a star, that can make it really tough for the child.” If I can ask, how have you navigated that?
Our oldest is eight and our youngest is five. The oldest kinda gets it. Our five year-old is just coming to terms with it.
It’s funny: A year or two ago we would go to a track or be at dinner and people would ask for an autograph, and she would say, “Daddy, why do they like you?” (Laughs.)
That’s actually really cute.
And I would explain that our sport has millions of fans, and some of them like to meet us.
But while our sport does have a level of celebrity, it’s not like…
We still have layers of anonymity. We can get away from it, and even when that’s harder, we work hard to have a normal family lifestyle.
After all, sometimes our kids go into timeout. (Laughs.) That’s life, right?
I grew up with a very simple upbringing. So did my wife. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying.
You talked about parenting in terms of example and action. I could argue that the last year will ultimately help make you a better parent, especially in terms of how to deal with disappointment… and still keep doing your best.
That’s kind of you to say.
Experience really does help. I was twenty-six when I started driving in Cup. Getting there seemed like a valley that took forever for me to cross… but the silver lining is that I am much better prepared to deal with this valley.
At the time it feels terrible, but having watched people hit stardom at a young age, having seen people around me achieve early success and then not know how to deal with tough times…
Looking back, experiencing the tough years really was a silver lining. I may not enjoy this dip (laughs) but I know how to deal with it.
And get to the other side.